So this part of the trip is a lot more interesting than the previous. The hovercycle is a ground effect craft, using the bladeless fans that the Vyortovians favor (safety first!), so I can't actually fly. Which means that, by the time I'm cutting back on-shore but not toward the Rook HQ tower brooding over its portion of Halcyon, I'm having to negotiate city streets. Okay, that's even more fun. Especially since I can actually drive over cars and the like. I don't directly cause any accidents, though there might be a few fender benders in my wake. Being able (and willing) to ignore cars and signals means I can pick straighter, more direct routes through the city, then the suburbs, and at last into the more rural countryside, where I can open up even more. Which means I barely get there before Mercury catches up. Good to know. The Two Rivers plant was shut down by government regulators some time ago, after cracks appeared in the containment vessel, and it turned out the whole structure was compromised. The owner-operator, Pica Power, sued the constructor, Bechtel, who in turn claimed that a battle between Magus Everard and Doctor Infinity over in Halcyon had weakened the space-time fabric in a way that was consistent with yadda-yadda ... The case is still tied up in court, which means the public once again got handed the socialized costs, not the privatized profits. Of course. On the other hand, someone is going to get stuck with the bill for what we're seeing. The plant looks like a swarm of ants landed all over it -- robots that are already there (having flown from further away than Halcyon, and so not part of the swarm that Link is leading along), all of them kicking in doors or pounding on walls or crawling atop the containment towers. Huh. And here I am with a pair of sticks and a couple of pistols. Not exactly the best thing for going up against robots on the -- * * * It's only a few meters away. I can hear the tick-tick of its legs on the rocks. Rocks! I carefully move, pick up one of the sharp-edged stones at my feet, then, without making myself visible, throw it as far as I can to the side, down that decline over there. It dashes out from the cluster of boulders I was crouched bhind, pursuing the clatter of the stone as it hits, and, as silently as I can manage, I dash the opposite direction, up the hill. * * * Mercury glances at me. He's not even breathing heavy. "Let me check the perimeter" he says, and heads off around the fence line, anti-clockwise. "Found a gap," he says on comms. "Breach in the building, going on -- crap, let me get you --" A dull thud of explosives goes off, a third of the way around the complex to my left. I put down the pedal and swing that way. The gate in through the fence is torn away, and beyond in the main building, a ways down from the containment vessel, there's a large hole in the thick concrete, from which smoke is now pouring. No sign of Mercury. Just a couple of unconscious guards in Rook Security uniforms, lying on the pavement. "This must be the place," I say, shutting down the bike, and stepping carefully to the gap. The chamber beyond is large and open, high ceilings supported by concrete pillars, supply racks to one end, large machinery as part of the power generation process in sunken bays ahead of me. The smoke is coming from some small fires. Explosion. Torn ropes, blast radius there, combustibles affected out to there , wire fragments and -- Boobytraps. Not just dumb robots, then. They're expecting to be followed . These were programmed by Rossum, or his clone. He's a genius. I can't underestimate him or I'm dead. Gee. Sounds like home. * * * I scramble up the mound. The wind continues to chill, my shoes (fine and comfortable for the long, unexpected ride from England) are no match for the sharp volcanic rock, much less my hands and legs. I'm bleeding from a dozen deep cuts by the time I reach the top. There some twisted, rusting steel structural pieces there, as if this were once an observation post placed on the marginal high point of the windswept terrain. I see no other signs of civilization from where I crouch, only something I hope doesn't spot me here. There will be no running from this spot. * * * I look around for Mercury. There's a Mercury-sized hole in the debris extending back through the tumbled equipment racks. If he's dead, there's no helping him. If he's injured -- well, speedsters heal awfully fast. I'm working on a clock. If -- when -- the other robots arrive, this place will be swamped. I start making my way down the obvious path to take between the equipment. I need a sample, an example of the tech -- or technique -- being used. It comes quickly -- a fine wire extended across the passageway, connected on either end to a small, blinking green module. You can learn a lot about someone from the traps they set. Elaborate ones, simple ones, high-tech, simple kinetics. People sometimes mix it up, but unless they have unlimited time to intentionally mix things up, they follow a pattern. I like patterns. I started moving. Consider the factors: (1) limited time to act, (2) the possibility of traps I didn't spot attacking places where I triggered them, (3) the possibility of robots lying in wait. Moving at speed, and in paths that are less obvious, is the clear decision to make. A roll here, running along a machinery cage there, leap, tumble to the floor, up, parkour along and off the side of that, swing around that pipe, duck under that beam, run along that catwalk, dive down the stairs to the level below -- It's an elaborate dance, a gymkhana of combat skills and ballet and a dozen other disciplines, aided by my awareness (and that in turn aided by the irregular drumming of explosions, battering, and possibly gunshots in the complex around me, which act as a sort of spatial sonar and direction-finding). I come to three conclusions: 1. I hate robots, probably more than usual. Particularly ones programmed by a hypergenius. A sneaky, and murderous, hypergenius. Because the traps aren't nearly as simple as they should be. Sure, there are the avoidable singletons. And then there are the devious "Oh, you bypassed that one by stepping here, but that's a trap, too!" type, which I can handle okay. It's the "Oh, you thought I was thinking only one layer deep? I anticipated your bypassing the first, then ducking the second, by placing something right here for the third!" I nearly get tagged more often than I am comfortable with that trick -- but I don't dare slow down. It might take days to deactivate everything I'm getting around, under, through, or otherwise past. I don't even have hours. I have minutes. 2. Speedsters are annoying. Because I'm most of the way through the maze of death, down three levels, when I realize that Mercury is right there, behind me, mimicking my steps (more or less, and where they count), a bit faster, but not (ha!) as maneuverable. "Got your back, Charade," he says, giving me a finger gun shot. Really annoying. 3. I so need another outfit, or a better tailored one. The defensive points aren't what they should be, my range of motion is limited around the back of the shoulders and the feet, and ... ... it chafes in some unfortunate places. I slide under a laser trigger, roll, and jump over physical tripwire just where I would have been had I continued sliding ... which, shitshitshit , brings me up into yet another laser trigger, and I roll and twist and only get part of the effect from the blast, which would be fine except I don't get my legs up, and they hit the handrail and it hurts , dammit. I crash to the ground, and Mercury is there, offering a hand. I wave it off, roll to my feet, hold up a finger to him and say, "Not. One. Word." I am not going to let my anger get the better of me. I can't afford to. But the anger is there, and I can't wait to find a target to take it out on. * * * It's turning my way, and I duck down. I don't understand why this is happening, my tenth birthday is next week, this isn't how it was meant to be, I just want to go home, and -- A rustle of metal on stone, close, too close, and I peer around the rocks, and see that it's spotted me, it's coming, it's struggling on the rocks on the slope, but it's climbing, and when it get to the top, it's going to kill me. * * * I'm listening to the comms as we move. Concord's doing something to try to block the waves of bots coming in before they arrive and kill us. Link gets dropped off by Otto, along with Waters, Rossum, and Ghost Girl. Otto heads off in the Phoenix ship to shoot robots. The last three are staying up topside (with Waters and Ghost Girl double-teaming Rossum). Link is heading in from his own direction. It almost feels like we're a (dare I say it?) team. "Watch out for traps," I call on comms, even as I get moving on. "They're placed by a pro -- don't assume anything." "Thank you, my dear," Rossum's voice comes at a distance. "Can you, could you please hold that closer, thank you -- son? Son, watch out for the flashing green modules as well." Link growls something unintelligible. He sounds pissed. Join the club, Leo. * * * It's coming. What do I do? What can I do? I can't fight it. It's bigger than me, it's faster than me, it's made of metal, it it looks like a spider and I hate spiders and -- A rumble of stone, and I spare another quick glance. It's partially sliding back down, as some of the rocks under it come lose and roll beneath its legs. And that, finally, gives me an idea. * * * At the bottom of everything is a great open space, multiple levels, concrete brutalist architecture -- I have no idea what it was originally designed for (I wouldn't expect it in a nuclear power plant -- I make a mental note). The room goes up three floors, with fabrication equipment on the floor, ad glass-walled offices / design rooms / conference rooms / Other Things above, looking out over the main area like an atrium. Link gets there moments after we do. I don't know if he found a shorter route, or just bulled through the explosives and the like and forced his way here. I already know enough about Leo to recognize that tactic as likely. There's been a battle here: bits of robot scattered hither and thither in a most becoming fashion; pieces of Rook guards somewhat less so. None of that is what draws the eye. Across the great hall, a solid wall of robots stands before one of the rooms -- presumably with Rossum (or, rather, his clone) inside. Others are on the ground floor, or the third floor above, but the mass shows the target. But, as with good bodyguards around their principal, there's no easy way in. I've loaded up one of the red-taped clips, armor piercers that can easily handle a bot if targeted properly. But I'd need a backpack full to deal with this lot, and I've got just two clips of ten. * * * The rusted metal is hard, rough, jagged. The skin on my hands tears as I push, push with all my strength, all my weight. I've learned about Archimedes. I don't want to move the world -- just one, relatively small, but very important part of it. * * * "They're stalling," Link growls. "Waiting for reinforcements. We have to get him out of there." "Wouldn't dream of standing in your way," I tell him. "Any suggestions how?" Mercury grins. "I got this." He's a blur as he races up the side ramp to the second floor, plowing through the robots along that balcony. He's not hitting them -- that would slow him down too much. Instead, he's running past them, letting the impact of the air he's displacing, the slip-stream at super-sonic speeds, do the job. Robots go flying over the railing, tumbling in cartwheels through the air, dragged behind him on the draft. The glass in all the windows cracks, and some shatters. (I hope Rossum is standing back, though I'm not hoping too hard.) I know what Mercury's doing, and how he has to do it, and I can still barely see him. But my eye is busy, tracking and tapping the bots that aren't blown away. Most shooting range targets are 10-25m away. This is more like 50m. I expend one clip of ten taking down nine of them. I blame the sudden magnesium flare of one of the bots for the miss. It sends Mercury stumbling, blinded, over the rail himself. But he's accomplished his mission. As I reload, Link fires his grapnels through the window, breaking it open, and yanking him up. The bots on the level above fire at him, but all miss. A moment inside, out of sight, then he's back, running out of the room with Rossum under his arm, jumping over the rail to the ground below. The bots cease fire as soon as Rossum enters the line of sight, but the scientist himself is screaming and ranting at Link. He pulls some sort of a taser as he's carried across the chamber toward us, jamming it again and again into Link's armor ... If Link feels it he says and does nothing, save to slap the device out of his father's clone's hands. If he feels anything abut the vitriol coming from Rossum's mouth, he doesn't even react that much. There's no question we're heading out. Link takes point, Rossum still struggling under one arm. Mercury staggers out behind him. I take the rear, in case covering fire is needed. It's not. Nothing follows us. Nor are the traps a problem -- they seem to have all been deactivated. Sometime just before we get to the exit, there's a loud whomp sound, and brilliant light pours in from the windows. Presumably that has to do with the arc of missing building (and ground beneath it) we end up passing on our way back into the sunlight. Concord is hovering in mid-air -- and, from what I can tell, in the center of the sphere partially inscribed around us -- blinking. Robot wreckage is lazily falling from the sky. * * * I scream in pain, frustration, and fear, pushing down one last time on the length of steel. Blood runs down the metal, but, with a rumbling groan, the boulder I'm levering dislodges, rolling down the hill, dragging several others with it. They tumble with increasing speed. The spider-bot, two-thirds up the hillock, never has a chance to dodge. One rock knocks out a leg, toppling it over. The next two smash into its spherical body, sending a trail of smoke into the air, as it clatters down the hillside, its glowing eye dimming and fading to black. * * * Concord descends slowly to the ground, even as Ghost Girl rises up from the earth, holding both Rossum (the original) and Agent Waters. The Rossum under Link's arm says, in a voice suddenly calm and avuncular, "Ah, very good, you caught my clone, Leo. Well done." Link's armored face stares down at him impassively. The Rossum that Ghost Girl is holding sputters. "You know," I comment, "we could kill them both. That would solve a host of problems." A few heads turn toward me, but Link only chuckles. "I think a better punishment is to put them in a cell together." The two Rossums look at each other. "Oh, no," they protest in unison. "Don't do that." "... Br'er Fox," mutters Ghost Girl. "Goddammit," says Link. * * * The small jet lands vertically at the base of the rock hillock, and the man who set this whole horrible affair in motion, the one who so casually said on my arrival, "Defeat my servant or die," that man descends from the cockpit, and stands, calm, implacable, bald head gleaming in the afternoon sun, hands behind his back, as I climb carefully, painfully, down from my perch. "You survived," he says as I approach. "Well done." "Who are you?" I stand before him, fists clenched, tears streaming down my face. "Where's my father? They said they were taking me to my father." He seems not to hear me. "It was the most straightforward and physical of the three obvious solutions, of course, but an effective one, demonstrating both knowledge and strength of will." "Who are you?! Why are you doing this?" He cocks an eyebrow. "I am your father, Alycia." I stare at him. He makes a dismissive motion with his hand. "I needed to see if you were worthy of being my daughter." "And if I wasn't?" His eyes are pale and cold. "Then I would have had to find another. Which would have been ... inconvenient." I want to scream at him. I want to collapse and bawl my head off. I want to turn and run. But I realize I am in as much danger now as when I was facing the robot. So I only ask, "What were the other two solutions?" He looks down at me for a long moment. Then he smiles. "Well said. You are, in fact, worthy." Despite myself, I can't help but feel proud. * * * The AEGIS VTOLs land a dozen minutes later. Sirens are audible in the distance. Troops pile out, weapons at the ready, aimed at the Rossums, as well as at the surroundings in case any robots appear. Stories are told, notes compared, the location of more robots down below are mentioned, the Rossums are taken into custody (and loaded into separate aircraft), and all seems well. Leo's face is unreadable in his armor, and he doesn't say anything to either Rossum as they are carted away. He does look at Waters for a long moment, and the agent nods to him before getting into the VTOL with the (clone) Rossum. We stand around and look at each other, and I realize I've become a part of something bigger than I'd expected. I'm not sure how that makes me feel, or what will happen next. But I smile, and make a droll comment, and make sure to betray no sign of uncertainty. We defeated the bad guys. That's my job now, isn't it? * * * "Come. We will return to our base of operations," my father says. "The medics will attend to your wounds, and see that you are clothed properly. We have much to discuss." He eyes me for a long moment. "You are part of something far greater than you ever knew, Daughter. It is time you learned." He extends a hand. "Come." We walk to the plane, passing the smoking wreckage of the robot. I shudder slightly, but try not to let my father see my weakness. I passed this test. That's all I need know, for now.